By Daniel Patton, April 1, 2020
GEMS World Academy temporarily shuttered its New Eastside campus on Friday, March 13, in accordance with Illinois Governor Pritzker’s order to close all of the state’s public and private schools to combat the spread of coronavirus. Classes resumed via online videoconferencing the following Monday.
Since then, GEMS hasn’t missed a beat. The school has been executing its remote learning plan every weekday while keeping pace with the teachers’ original lesson plans, which include lessons, individual work, and community and socializing time.
“We kind of sensed this was coming, so we already had this conversation with kids,” recalled Head of School Tom Cangiano. “They were prepared and had all the equipment they needed.”
The equipment includes iPad minis that students received when they were in junior kindergarten and MacBook Pros in fourth grade. The gear makes a fitting complement to the school’s tech-savvy methodology of its young scholars.
GEMS is an International Baccalaureate school that educates a diverse population of students from preschool through grade 12. With a strong focus on innovation, it incorporates emerging technology into the daily routine.
As a result, students made a rather easy transition from classroom to home.
Plugging into online applications like Zoom and Google Meet, they attend class, form breakout groups, learn from guest lecturers, and collaborate on digital versions of the traditional white board. Recently, the fourth graders studied immigration by listening to the personal stories of a Filipino archaeologist from National Geographic Explorer.
According to Director of Innovation Peg Keiner, it’s been more or less school as usual. “We had the infrastructure in place, and teachers were already doing this,” she explained. “We have a program that believes that children can learn everywhere. We just added Zoom.”
Cangiano, who teaches a literature class, said that replicating the dynamic of a group discussion with students “is not as challenging as you think.”
“Teachers are using all kinds of different strategies,” he added. “They might be sharing their screens and embedding videos.”
The Field Studies Program
A slightly modified version of the school’s unique Field Studies program also continues to thrive. As part of a commitment to inquiry-based learning, the program has traditionally encouraged students to explore their surroundings, engage with the community, and learn from their
experiences. It complements the school’s “Chicago curriculum,” which Cangiano summarized by saying, “you become a great global citizen if you are a great local citizen.”
Now that students are studying remotely, instead of analyzing the food supply chain by visiting Mariano’s or observing symbiosis by watching dogs and their owners in the park, the students journey through their immediate surroundings.
“We’re encouraging kids to look at the things we can learn from home,” Keiner explained. “Normally, we would go to Mariano’s; but now we’re going to go to the fridge.”
Besides bringing lessons into bedrooms and kitchen tables (where preschoolers seem to prefer studying math), the virtual classrooms reinforce an essential component of education that cannot be learned through books or computers.
“People and interaction are the most important,” Keiner said. “In the absence of a physical, real-time community, we’ve had to create communities. From kindergarten up to 12th grade, we’ve had children on Zoom calls with each other, cultivating and retaining relationships we’ve built.”
Although Cangiano has noticed that some of the students appear to “miss being physically present,” he said that GEMS teachers and counselors offer one-on-one calls and online support, and the parents have been “incredible.”
“Our message to parents was that, in order for this to work, this had to be a team effort,” Cangiano said. The message was contained in a booklet that outlined GEMS remote learning plan and asked parents for feedback. “Everybody had helpful tips,” he added. “We couldn’t be happier.”
This connectivity fuels a larger effort that will help everyone move forward, according to Director of Admissions Adriana Mourgelas. “When you not only have wonderful administrators who are supportive of faculty but also parents, that’s something that helps,” she said. “We are a community and we’ll get through this together.”
In that spirit, GEMS sends a survey to parents every Friday to encourage communication and feedback on how things are going.
“We got a gauge on challenges so that we could adjust what we’re doing so that we could make those tweaks and fine tune those things,” explained Cangiano. “About 90% of our respondents said it was going pretty darn well.”